I love Christmas.
There’s something magical about the time of year for me. I love seeing the decorations and I adore colour so the lights, the house displays, the festive spirit are just so uplifting. It’s also near the end of the year so it’s also a time to take stock, think about all the things I am grateful for, consider how the year has passed and what I am looking forward to in the new one.
When I was a kid, we had a lot of Christmas traditions that I anticipated all year. The day after Thanksgiving my father would get down the boxes marked ‘Christmas’, and we’d spend most of the day putting up the fake tree, putting lights and ornaments on it, plastic garland up in the living room, snowflakes on the window. My mom would get out her Christmas card list and over the next week or two write and address all the cards by hand. She did ceramics and glass painting, and would have been decorating Christmas balls with Ukrainian designs for weeks that she’s sell at upcoming church bazaars.
My brother and I went to a Ukrainian scouts group called CYMA and throughout December they would organize caroling. We’d bundle into crowded cars at night and drive around the city, singing for young families and senior citizens in the community. As gratitude, they often prepared special sweets for us that we’d enjoy after caroling. I can almost taste those little shortbread style cookies with a smear of apricot jam and dusting of powdered sugar.
At home, the unopened advent calendar had been staring at us for almost a week by now and on December one, my brother would open the first door.
He would always open it first because I needed to open it on an even numbered day, specifically December 24—my birthday. While my brother had a summer birthday and parties, I have never had a birthday party: I had to wait all year so I drink up all the joy of the season, the smiles, the atmosphere.
I joke that people shouldn’t have gone through all the trouble of decorating so much for me.
In one of the odd ironies of life, my husband is born on Christmas Day, a few years earlier. We rib each other over who was ‘really’ born on Christmas; and although initially both of our parents were decent about separating ‘Christmas’ and ‘birthday’, that declined over the years. As a result we both make an effort to ensure the birthday part of the equation is special for each other. (Just for the record, since Jesus was born at night and it’s celebrated the next day when people would have known, I win. At least that’s my argument.)
When we first got together we fumbled around with the holidays—what traditions did he have and what did I have? As a kid I would pick Christmas Eve supper, which was invariably roast beef, my mom’s scalloped potatoes and asparagus. Ray’s family would have their roast on Christmas Day, and often had Chinese food on Christmas Eve so that’s what we’ve decided upon.
I make Chinese food Christmas Eve (homemade wontons, wonton soup, BBQ pork and fried rice) and Christmas Day it’s prime rib, gratin and steamed asparagus with hollandaise. It’s a grand celebration for the most wonderful time of the year.
But there has sort of been a bit of a decline in Christmas overall too, and it makes me sad—I sometimes wonder if it’s just me. Gone are the handwritten or personalized Christmas cards that wished you a good year—in are mass printed picture cards with little mention of the season.
In the past few years I’ve received ones full of shots of extensive vacations, listing all the cool things seen and done, family photos where everyone is masked in a singular show of virtue signaling, and even one where one of the teens seems to be sporting a gang sign. I long for the days of a card with reindeer or a Christmas tree, and a simple wish of good tidings for me and mine.
Christmas also seems to start earlier every year, and Thanksgiving is its most noticeable casualty. There is a short window of turkeys and cornucopia napkins and then it seems they are already discounted, replaced by Christmas themed items. I think the consumerism is what gets me—shelves are stuffed with so many goods made in China, where people aren’t even permitted to celebrate Christmas. I was so overjoyed to find Christmas lights made in Malaysia this year that I almost danced in the aisle.
But I remain hopeful—that’s my nature.
Christmas lights not made in China is a step, and I got a picture card this year that had a photo not of a coterie of mask wearers, but of the family cat hiding in a Christmas tree.
One of the traditions I miss from childhood is the cookies. Someone at my dad’s work would sell large tins of butter cookies during the year and mom would save them for Christmas, when she’d fill them with cookies. My family wasn’t big on sweets but during the holidays that was relaxed, and I admit I indulged often.
Christmas for me is a time of giving and appreciation—of reaching out to ‘orphan’ friends, sharing home baked goods, making sure in the rush you hold the door open for the person behind you. It’s about trying to put disappointments aside and focusing on the things that are good in life and spreading cheer. Don’t you find it easier to smile, when someone takes a moment to smile at you? When your arms are full of packages and your kids are tired, doesn’t it warm your soul when that equally busy person in front of you smiles and steps aside for you to go first? Be that goodness and kindness; set the example. Be of of good cheer and glad tidings this time of year and you might be surprised how much lighter your heart feels.
I’ve included the recipes for my mom’s cookies and my wontons. Merry Christmas, and may health and happiness be yours this season and next year.
People are usually a little unsure about this first cookie but once they try them, they’re hooked. They’re my husband’s favorite cookies by far.
Sour Cream Drop Cookies
1 c. soft butter
1.5 c. sugar
3.5 c. flour
½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
1 tsp. nutmeg (I always put in just a tiny bit extra)
¼ c. sour cream
Candied cherries, halved
Coloured sugar sprinkles
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Cream butter and sugar; add eggs and beat well. Add dry ingredients and sour cream and mix well.
Drop by generous teaspoonfuls onto a cookie sheet (these cookies spread a bit, FYI).
Top with a shake of coloured sugar and half a candied cherry. Bake for approximately 12 minutes, until the bottoms start to just get slightly brown.
Cool on a rack, if possible. Makes about 6-7 dozen, depending on how generous your teaspoonfuls are.
~ 0.6 lbs ground, unseasoned pork (you can sub unseasoned ground chicken or use diced, cooked shrimp, for non-pork eaters)
5 scallions, trimmed and finely sliced (including greens)
~1“ fresh ginger, peeled and very finely diced
~ 3.5 tbs. low-sodium soy sauce
~ 3 dashes Rice wine vinegar
~3 dashes mirin
Pepper (I prefer green; see my note below)
½ can finely diced water chestnuts (optional – they can add a bit of texture and crunch)
Oil (I use peanut)
1 package wonton wrappers
In a suitable size bowl, combine all the ingredients except the wrappers and oil and mix well. Heat a small frying pan over medium heat and add a touch of oil. Take a dollop of the mix, and fry it until it’s brown and cooked. Try the mix and adjust the seasonings as necessary; if the salt level isn’t to your liking, add a touch more soy sauce or a pinch of salt.
This mix will sit overnight so the flavors will blend more, but make sure the filling has a pleasant overall flavor to you. That bit is kind of personal, so my measurements above are guidelines. I like it not too salty with a bit of tang from the vinegar but underlying sweetness from the mirin.
I usually tend to under-season a bit in the beginning because you can’t take salt (for instance) away.
Once you’re happy, put the mix in the fridge overnight.
Next day: On a large cutting board, place several rows of wrappers out and fill a small bowl with some water. Place about a teaspoonful of mix in the center of each wrapper, then moisten a finger and wet two adjacent sides of the wrapper and fold the opposite corners over, to make a triangle. Pinch closed, working out any large air bubbles as you do so, then join the two opposite corners and pinch together.
You can par-cook them by steaming them for several minutes before frying or dropping them in soup, and storing the remainder of the partly-cooked wontons for several days in the fridge.
Note on pepper: Most traditional wonton recipes call for white pepper, but I don’t like white pepper; it has a musty smell to it that I don’t find pleasing. Green pepper is my pick because it has a nice overall flavor without it being as sharp and distinctive as black pepper.
From my family to yours, have a very Merry Christmas.